Since 1980, Roadrunner Records has been the home of some of metal’s most notable and revered axe-slingers. To try and identify the greatest of all-time in our extensive catalog would be an impossible feat, so instead, we’re showcasing just some of our MANY great guitarists, and only focusing on those central to our US roster, which has been alive and well since 1987.
Rather than just show you the riffs that encompass each guitar player’s brute strengths, we’ve enlisted DragonForce’s lightning-fast shredder Herman Li as our guitar expert, giving insight into why each guitarist noted is so amazing from a player’s perspective. And in case that’s not enough information, we’ve also got commentary from Mikael Akerfeldt, Jeff Waters, Andreas Kisser and more on their very own riffing named amongst Roadrunner’s best.
Due to overwhelming fan response, we’re opening up our spotlight to include more Roadrunner greats. Read on to see who we’ve called out and let us know what you think in the comments section below. In alphabetical order, we give you a Spotlight on Great Roadrunner Guitarists part 1.
Mikael Akerfeldt formed Opeth in Stockholm, Sweden in 1990, and as a guitarist, he honed his craft far in advance. “I’ve always loved the guitar as an instrument, ever since I was a kid, and I guess aspired to be as good as possible. However, my priorities changed somewhat once I figured out how to write songs,” Akerfeldt tells us. “That became my main agenda, but I still love playing the guitar.”
As for the honor we’ve bestowed upon him, Akerfeldt contests, “Can’t say I see myself as ‘great,’ it’s so individual. There’s no such thing as a ‘fact’ when it comes to who is a great guitar player. If you ask me, I think a good player needs a good ‘tone’ that makes it sound like it’s him or her playing. A good vibrato: in my world a vibrato that starts with a straight note that with time starts vibrating. Like the vocals of old crooners. A good sense of rhythm, something many great lead players don’t possess. Taste: choosing notes from the heart and not from a scale. Technique is also important but not as much as a musical personality. Versatility…many metal players can only play metal music, and it gets real dull to me. If you have all of the above, you’re either writing and leading your own great band or you’re fucking hired!”
Weighing in on Akerfeldt’s criteria for greatness, our personally appointed guitar expert Herman Li says of Opeth, “That’s a band that has their special sound. They’ve been around for so many years, made so many albums, and there isn’t another band able to replicate their unique sound. It’s very difficult to be unique either individually or as a group and Opeth carry on making these unique albums. So [he’s] earned a spot here for actually being very, very original since the beginning.“
As for his influences, Akerfeldt name-checks Ritchie Blackmore, Andy Latimer (Camel), David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Yngwie Malmsteen, Adrian Smith, Toni Iommi, Jimmy Page, Bert Jansch, Joni Mitchell, Trey Azagthoth and Tommy Emmanuel – an eclectic list fit for an innovative guitar player.
“I have no ‘proudest moment’ as a player really other than when PRS guitars suggested they should make a signature guitar for me,” says Akerfedlt. “I was pretty chuffed about that, and it’s a beauty! The whole endorsement deal with them overall is pretty amazing I have to say.” As for the music, he contends, “There’s one cool riff in the song “The Funeral Portrait” off the Blackwater Park record. I always liked it and there’s also one evil sounding bit in “Wreath” that just makes me wanna kick the shit out of someone, but I can’t since I got the guitar in my hands and I wouldn’t wanna wreck it.”
Dino Cazares is among the hardest working guitarists in metal. With his hand in at least two projects at any given moment since he started out in 1989 with both Fear Factory and Brujeria, his love of the guitar actually started much earlier in his life. In an interview with Frantikmag.com, Cazares discusses his introduction to the power of the mighty six-string, saying, “The first time I heard AC/DC play I was hooked. I was like wow, it kind of scares me being seven or eight years old at the time. Even younger I had my brother’s videos that really turned me on to that kind of music. I remember, you know, as a young kid, going to church every Sunday and my brother would be cranking Black Sabbath in his truck on our way. I was just sitting there thinking ‘Aww, this is the best!’ Then I saw Angus Young playing live on stage, well, it was on TV, but I thought to myself, ‘I wanna be like that guy.’”
As for the first time he picked up a guitar, Cazares continues in the same interview, “That’s when I was around fourteen. Metallica was already out; Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and all the classic stuff. I was hooked. I was really into it. (pauses) Maybe it had something to do with church though. Maybe I wanted to rebel so I picked the scariest, heaviest most offensive music that your parents wouldn’t like. That’s just what I got into and it’s still in my heart. It’s never left.”
As for his personal style as demonstrated in bands like Brujeria, Fear Factory, Nailbomb, Divine Heresy, and Asesino, Cazares laughs, “There will be some similarities due to my right-hand style of picking, of course.”
Herman Li weighs in on this great guitarist, saying, “Of course. Fear Factory, when they came out with songs like ‘Replica’ on the second album, I think it really had an influence on the metal scene we have now. That kind of riffing he was doing was very, very cool. I remember headbanging to Fear Factory songs in the metal clubs back in London when I was growing up. So Dino definitely contributed that Brrrap-d-dap-dap brrrap-dapdap kind of rhythm. ‘Metal-core’ – that’s what they call it.”
Phil Demmel got his start with Bay Area crossover thrash legends Vio-Lence, founding the band in 1985. Though on our list for his work in Machine Head since joining them in 2004, Demmel’s affinity for thrashing definitely shows in his playing style.
Herman Li explains, “We all know about Machine Head. Machine Head is a band that has been going on for a long time, and they’ve really been awesome doing it. And Phil definitely adds that dimension they didn’t have in the earlier albums. I love the way he performs: it’s really accurate, solos are great, the rhythm playing — him and Robb really kick it. When we were touring with those guys a few years ago I thought ‘This is cool. These guys are really tight and really energetic,’ you know? You can really hear the organic feel to their playing. It’s really powerful, you need to see it on stage to hear the real power. It sounds great on the album but on stage BOOM. So Phil Demmel I think he’s doing really awesome riffing and soloing in Machine Head. I look forward to hearing what they’re going to do on their next album.”
Very vocal about Dimebag Darrell’s influence on his playing since the band’s inclusion in a tribute album for Dime last year, Demmel cites Michael Denner and Hank Shermann as also having an effect on his love affair with the guitar. “They’ve got timing changes in their stuff,” Demmel tells ultimate-guitar. “We are really influenced guitar-wise, Robb and I, from [that]. We totally have a couple parts where people are gonna go, ‘Oh, man, that’s totally Mercyful Fate right there!’”
Always the jokester in the cape or the short shorts, Adam D. might not seem like a very serious dude, but his chops are nothing to f*ck with. Starting out as Killswitch Engage’s drummer in 1999, this producer-by-day, guitarist-by-night also studied bass at Berklee College of Music. Suffice to say, he’s kind of a jack of all trades when it comes to musicianship. And while he can do it all, he’s on our guitarists list for his ability to shred with the best of them and his innovations in incorporating a melodic sensibility into ferocious riffs.
As Herman says, “With Adam, what really impresses me is not just him as a guitar player. Of course Killswitch’s songs do very much inspire the current generation of bands from metalcore to the other stuff. With him he can produce as well and that’s what impresses me most. I’m impressed with guitarists that can do more than just guitar playing and he really understands all the production and recording and playing. He also has a unique stage presence; I haven’t seen any other guitar player act like him on stage. So that’s really cool. It’s always good to be different and do your own thing and not care what people have to say and really have that attitude when it comes to performance and music.”
Though Adam D. might credit beer for his chops, we know deep down its more serious than that. For as he tells guitarmessenger.com, “I listen to all styles of music. You take from whatever you listen to… Hell, even a broken muffler on a car or something like that can really, no joke, can inspire random rhythms.” Well, a little more serious than that.
For Trivium’s Matt Heafy, not only did his affinity for guitars start young, but so did his music career. Having been on Roadrunner since 2004, we’ve seen Heafy grow from a bright-eyed 18-year-old to a twentysomething guitar master – and he’s only getting started.
Of the honor in being included in our list, Heafy tells us, “Any time anyone regards one of my fellow band mates or myself as something ‘great’ we’re always both honored and humbled. There is so much yet to learn about the instrument left for me but I greatly appreciate the consideration.”
Heafy continues, “I have so many sources of inspiration that have allowed me to create my own path. I think that greatness on an instrument or as a songwriter can’t be measured solely through technicality or ability alone, but at the unique attributes that define the particular artist as a whole.”
Heafy cites his own lessons so far, saying,”Guitar for me has been a lifelong journey of absorbing influences from my environment and using those influences to find my own individual style. With some musicians it’s instantaneous, with others it takes development. For me guitar wasn’t something that came easy at first and it took hours of practice each day to simply get me to a ‘decent’ level of playing. The turning point for me to becoming a serious guitar player was discovering heavy metal. Metal sparked my love affair with playing guitar. I wanted to play metal music and to do that I needed to be good. I absorbed every record I could to learn from different styles of players – classic metal, death metal, Swedish melodic metal, black metal, etc. It’s definitely been a process. Trivium is currently working on its fifth album and after years of practicing and playing I feel nowadays more than ever I am to the point where I am now speaking on the guitar with my own voice.”
Though it’s his catalyst, Heafy contends, “Metal isn’t my only influence. My eyes and ears are always open to learning new things and gaining life experiences. I feel that my artistic playbook is inspired by many things through movies, books, games and life in general and that constant thirst to be open to new things makes me want to develop my style in songwriting, soloing, playing even more. It’s my hunger to learn new things that may lead me to see things from new angles that may change and develop my playing even more over time. And what I am playing now might be different a year from now. I don’t know where the journey will end but I do know I’ll still be playing somewhere and somehow.”
Herman Li affirms his inclusion in this list, saying, “Matt’s definitely one of the top guys here from the new generation of young guitar players coming up in the last few years. He’s really able to take the influence from the 80’s metal, the 90’s metal and really give it a fresh sound for these days and I really like the way he approached that. Trivium is definitely a very metal band and they have some awesome metal influences from an earlier time that I can hear. There are obviously other bands that are inspired by all this stuff, but they put it out, they really get it and deliver it in a new way and inspire new guitar players. Him along with Corey [Beaulieu], really do a great job in the metal scene now.”
Andreas Kisser joined Sepultura the same year they were signed to Roadrunner Records: 1987. Having gotten his start as Max Cavalera’s roadie initially, Kisser proved over the course of the band’s legendary career — continuing still today — that he is indeed a worthy force on the guitar.
Herman Li explains, “Sepultura have been around for a long time and Andreas really, really, really, really inspires lots and lots and lots of guitar players — obviously [all of]us in DragonForce. They have put out some really amazing albums over the years and they were original since they started and really carried on that scene throughout the years. Andreas and Sepultura have awesome riffing and really unique sounds that they combine with their Brazilian [origins]. That’s what earned them this spot: again, the originality of the guitar player.”
When we told him he was named amongst our guitar greats, Andreas responded, “Wow, that’s great. Sepultura had a great history with RR and I’m honored to be in such a special list. Even better is not a ranked list, I don’t like those anyway. I think every musician has their own way to express their feelings through music, so there’s no better or worse, it’s just different.”
As Kisser names “Randy Rhodes, Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Metallica, Judas Priest, Exodus, Slayer, Scorpions, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Howe, Andres Segovia and many others” amongst his influences, he adds, “I look at a guitar not only as a weapon to play metal, but one to play anything. I like to expand my limits on music so I play with many different musicians from different styles — you’re always learning something new when you play a new style. I also play classical guitar and try to keep my studying on the road. Music is the real expression, no words needed to say something that can be understood by anyone.”
As for what he enjoys playing the most, Kisser states, “I like to play heavy stuff, blues and classical, no favorite riffs, rather the endless search for the next one. Just proud to do what I love and support a family doing that.”
Our appointed commentator and fellow guitar master Herman Li combines the untouchable talent of classic virtuosos with the fun of video game sounds in his band DragonForce. Proving his theory of what makes a great guitarist, it’s his innovative and original style that’s both recognizable and unmatchable that has garnered him not only a spot, but an important role in helping us explain the greatness of others. Li can do double-handed guitar sweeps and tackle arpeggios with finesse, and then make Pac-Man sounds come through his fret board. And what’s more? He makes it all look easy as the somehow always-blowing-wind flows through his hair.
On his inclusion in our spotlight on Roadrunner guitarists, Herman says, “I am really honored to be in the short list with so many other highly influential guitar players in the metal scene. I am still learning and improving everyday and hopefully will carry on inspiring guitarists and musicians around the world for the years to come.”
When prodded for some of his favorite guitar moments and proudest moments so far, Li cites the band’s forthcoming first live album. “Twilight Dementia really showed me how far DragonForce have come and how I have evolved as a musician and performer. Myself and everyone in DragonForce are really proud of our live performances on the Ultra Beatdown tour. The exciting thing is, we are still getting better each tour!”
Though like Akerfeldt, the bulk of his musical career so far has been through other labels, there’s no contesting that Dave Mustaine is one of the greatest guitarists we currently house. And that’s no blanket statement: Mustaine was named #1 in the 2009 book 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists for his dual mastery as a lead and rhythm player. Mustaine tells Classic Rock Magazine how he learned of this honor while flipping through the book: “I froze. I was No. 1. What made it better still is that the guy wrote: ‘This isn’t about Dave as a person because he’s been a cock” — [interjects with a bray of laughter] — ‘These four pages are about his guitar playing, which is the best. There are people who are better at one thing that Mustaine does, and others that are better than another, but no-one who’s as good at everything.’ All I thought was… I win!”
Starting in 1983 with Metallica, then forging ahead with Megadeth since 1985, Dave has been churning out riffs that have awed not only guitarists everywhere, but fans of heavy music, proving you don’t have to know how to play it to appreciate it. And with his two Roadrunner efforts thus far, United Abominations and Endgame, Mustaine continues to celebrate his victory as a great guitarist with intricate, untouchable riffing.
As for the groundwork Megadeth laid in the early 90s, Herman Li, a big fan, recalls: “I still remember the days when I used to sit on the bus to school and listen to Countdown to Extinction, Rust In Peace, So Far, So Good…So What? –I mean all the guys in school would say ‘You’ve got to listen to this.’ And I though ‘Man, wow!’ “Tornado of Souls”, all those songs, “Holy Wars” it really blew my mind for years and years and I listen to it now and it still blows me away. Dave Mustaine’s a great songwriter, obviously leader of Megadeth, and he never gives up, he carries on and he does solos so well. In guitar solos, he used to trade off with Marty Friedman and I really liked that he can play that complex rhythm along with doing vocals at the same time. Mustaine has definitely been a big influence to me, and to everyone in DragonForce musically.”
Pulling double duty in both Slipknot and Stone Sour, guitarist Jim Root trades rhythms and leads in the former, and focuses solely on leads in the latter. But regardless of his role, Jim’s style and speed has undoubtedly influenced the current state of heavy music. Having joined Stone Sour in 1995 and Slipknot in 1999, Root has his hand in two different bands who paved their own way and are now standing on mainstream success. Further testament to his greatness as a player is his signature guitar with Fender. While the brand is not the go-to guitar for metal bands, it’s that kind of innovation that makes Root’s work so recognizable in the scene.
Of the honor, the telecaster enthusiast tells guitar.com, “I’m with the same company that, you know, David Gilmour is with. And Jeff Beck. And all these amazing players. Eric Clapton. It’s a dream come true. It’s really amazing.” When asked if those are his influences, Root exclaims, “Absolutely. David Gilmour is a huge influence. I was into Harrison, the real tasty, bluesy George Harrison. He’s an amazing guitar player. Songwriter too. I listen to his solo stuff – actually I listened to All Things Must Pass earlier today. I listen to that, I listen to all the Beatles stuff. I listen to some Clapton stuff. I like everything. I like everything from bands like Blur to bands like Entombed to bands like Mezzanine or Portishead. I like everything. I listen to all kinds of weird crap.”
And with those influences and personal tastes in place, Root’s shredding leads and rhythms have a distinct sound. Our resident guitar expert Herman Li puts Root’s impact in context saying, “Jim has, along with Slipknot, changed the scene of metal for many years. With that style of music, it’s definitely original and the way they play, it really kind of scared a lot of people with their unique style. I think what happened here was that they really contributed to a style of metal that inspired a new generation of guitarists from their first album, up to now – obviously with the heavy riffing that is unique to their style. You don’t really hear any other band playing the way they do.”
In 1989, Canadian thrash solidified its place on the map with the inception of Annihilator and guitarist Jeff Waters. Named not only as one of our greats, but as a great influencer of the new school thrash revival, we spoke with Waters all about his lengthy career as a six-string slinger.
On being named in our list, Waters humbly concedes, saying, “I never set out to do that, I was just a metal fan.” He goes on to explain his guitar playing upbringing, saying “I grew up in a heavy metal era and 70’s rock: Van Halen, AC/DC, that stuff. Black Sabbath was around and KISS… but Van Halen came out with Women and Children First in 1980 and there was a song that we actually cover on our new record called “Romeo Delight” and that was at the time a really, really, heavy song and that got me interested in finding out if there’s any other bands playing that kind of music. And that led me to Sabbath and Priest and Maiden. Then the first albums from Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Exodus came out, that thrash stuff. There was three Canadian bands, Exciter, Razor and Anvil also at that time. And when the Bay Area thrash and the Canadian bands came out, I completely dropped my Heavy Metal stuff and went right over to Thrash. So that’s kind of like what my band and my playing is. I ended up just being a heavy metal fan who plays guitar and loves to play all these great guitar players’ riffs in my room. The only goal I ever had was to get a record deal — and of course that came true for me with Roadrunner. “
As for his personal playing style, Waters continues: “It started out being a little more thrash and fast when I was young but really there were no goals of trying to be different; all I tried to do was learn the stuff that my teachers taught me. And my teachers were the greats: Hetfield, Kerry King, Mustaine, Gary Holt from Exodus, Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, Glenn Tipton from Priest, Malcom Young. That’s what my guitar playing and my band is: this sort of gathering of all those things that I liked of those styles of music and that’s it, there was no trying to do this, or trying to do that, still to this day.”
As for how that results in his own brand of greatness, Jeff says, “It’s weird because I’ve just gone out there praising all these great players, I’m not shy I’m like ‘This song obviously has a Slayer kind of vibe and this one has a this kind of vibe.’ I’ve been talking about other players that I think are great and it’s kind of cool in the last 4-5 years since the Roadrunner United show down in New York, has really been just fielding a whole bunch of nice compliments from other guitar players about how I had a small influence on what they were doing in their careers.”
And of those guitarists is DragonForce’s Herman Li, who says, “Hey, I’ve been listening to Annihilator for years. I love the album Set The World On Fire — really good tracks in there, really diverse and [Waters] shreds it up solo-wise. No doubt. They’ve been going on, he never gives up, and he does the production, he deals with the whole band thing. It’s really cool; he’s got the whole thing together. He knows what he wants to do and he keeps going at it. He shreds like hell, riffs like crazy… Jeff Waters = Awesome.”